This weekend I learned I was uninformed. I was ignorant. I was wrong.
I was 9 years old. I was getting ready for school just like any other morning. My mom was in Pennsylvania visiting my grandparents and was supposed to fly back that day. My grandfather had gotten very sick and my mom decided to change her flight for a week later. My older sister had a TV in her room that I could see from our shared Jack and Jill bathroom. She was watching the news and was very quiet. She wasn’t exactly a morning person so this was normal. I was brushing my teeth and saw the reflection of her TV in the mirror. There was a building on fire in New York. I went downstairs and ate my cereal. I was picked up by our carpool a few minutes later. I spent every morning in the gymnasium with the other students who had to come in early because they also had older siblings in the neighboring high school. I remember seeing all of the teachers gathered by a TV and watching two buildings burn and seeing a ton of smoke. I went outside to play on the playground worrying whether or not I’d get a swing. I did not know what had happened until later that night and I did not understand what had happened until I was older. Being a child in California, I didn’t really know what the Twin Towers were. I remember being terrified when I was told planes crashed on the east coast and I thought my mom was flying back that day. She wasn’t. I remember the first time I heard the word Muslim. I remember learning where the Middle East was on a map. I remember seeing men with their heads covered on the news everyday. I heard the words Koran and Allah. This was the first time I heard all of these words. Unfortunately, this was also the first time I learned the word Terrorism.
I frequently hear that my generation is the last one that was old enough to really remember September 11th. Therefore, it is our responsibility to never forget what happened, but more importantly, it is our responsibility to teach the future generations what really happened. An extreme group of radicals decided to use religion as a political weapon to do an awful act and thousands of Americans lost their lives to the hands of terrorism.
I feared something I knew nothing about. Even worse, I never even realized the prejudices I had until this past weekend — 12 years after I learned them. I feared a group of people. I feared a religion. I feared the unknown and I never took the time to educate myself. This is not okay. This is something I am ashamed of and was a problem that I never knew I had. In the states, I never thought twice when I saw someone wearing a hijab. I criticized anyone that did and labeled them as prejudice. However, when I stepped off of the ferry this past Thursday and walked into a main street in Morocco, I was in shock. I had a moment alone outside while my group was exchanging money. I was terrified. I was a woman in a country that I thought hates women. I was surrounded with people who covered their faces. I felt like every man was looking at me. I felt unsafe. I was scared. My group returned and our guide took us through a market. There were bright red carcasses and animal parts hanging all around me. The women had their entire bodies covered. The workers were all male. The smell was awful. My shoes were slipping in unknown liquids. I fell behind the group and lost our tour guide. I ran out with two other girls and found our bus. I waited. I breathed. I thought to myself, what is your problem? Why are you acting like this? This is when I realized that I had been prejudice against a group of people without even knowing it.
Our first stop was at Darna. A women’s organization in Morocco where they educate women to read and write and train them in different job skills. I was so relieved once we got out of the street and entered this warm environment. We had Moroccan women and one Moroccan man join our group for lunch. We were allowed to ask them anything we wanted. “Anything?” We hesistated. “Anything,” our guide repeated. The next two hours consisted of the three topics we have been trained our whole lives to avoid at the dinner table: sex, drugs, and politics. Word by word I became more comfortable. These young adults were being so open with us. I asked why some women wear the hijab or cover their entire faces while some don’t wear anything. One woman, whom chooses not to wear the hijab, explained that it is a personal choice. That in the Koran is says to wear a hijab which translates to covering yourself. It tells you to be modest and she said it is the women who chooses what is modest and what is not. The woman sitting next to her, who was wearing a hijab, agreed and said she interprets modesty as covering her head, but that everyone chooses this for themselves. It is solely between the person and Allah. We asked their opinion on the king and their political system. They didn’t answer us about their king (and we later found out it is against the law to criticize him), but they did explain that there is an extreme amount of corruption in their country. They told us that the law does not protect women. If a woman is raped it is likely blamed on her. She seduced the man. She wore something provocative. She provoked it. If a woman breaks the laws of the Koran and drinks or has sex before marriage, she is a disgrace. If a man does the same, it’s because he’s just a boy and it is accepted. They said none of them drink and that they have no desire to. They all agreed they are happy and no matter how many problems their country has, it also has a beautiful side to it. It is home sweet home to them and after only a few hours I realized why: the religion and the people are incredible and kind.
One of my girlfriends asked how they felt about September 11th. They explained to us that it
disgusted them. That those men were terrorists to them as well. In the Koran it says taking one life is the same as stealing the soul of millions. Killing is absolutely forbidden. Those men used their peaceful religion as a political tool to manipulate others into doing a horrible act. This has nothing to do with their culture nor Islam. After lunch, they gave us a tour of Darna. They wrote our names in Islamic letters. We took pictures together and laughed with the Moroccan girls. We talked about shopping, music, and TV. I asked a girl where she got her adorable shirt which matched perfectly with her hijab. I took her picture and she asked me to send it to her on Facebook. The one girl then had to leave because she was going out with her friends. They were just 20 something year old women. They were exactly like us. They were exactly like me.
I walked out of Darna into the same street as before. I saw the same outfits. I saw the same people. But something had changed. Everything looked different. I then realized that I was changing and that I was different. I had realized my prejudices and even if I still had some of them, becoming aware was the first step. I felt stupid for fearing something as simple as trying to look modest before god. The men had never been looking at me. They were just going on doing their work as normal. The women were not hated once so ever. The meat market still grossed me out, but I laughed as the men smiled and waved at me through the hanging carcasses while I took pictures. I had only been on this continent for half a day and I already knew everything I had once thought was completely wrong.
Once we were back in the van, I took a much needed nap. Suddenly, I was woken up to a bunch of joyful screams. We had pulled up to the edge of the beach and our guide turned around and said, “Speaking of coos coos, who wants to ride some camels?!” Camels. OMG. I ran outside and jumped right up (and almost face planted off) on a camel and road off feeling like I was straight out of Aladdin. Screw a magic carpet – this camel just hugged me. Life is complete.
We drove to our home stays where we were strictly warned to stay away from pretty much all of the topics we talked about during lunch. Our host parents picked us up from our guide and took us to their homes. The homes were absolutely incredible. Giant, colorful, wooden doors welcomed us into open rooms lined wall to wall with colorful couches and beautiful tile work. Our home was three stories and there lived our host parents, host brother, and host sister. Only our host sister spoke English. Unfortunately, she was not there when we arrived and our host parents only spoke Arabic and French. Again, my lack of knowing any French continued to haunt me. I awkwardly sat on the couch facing my host parents along with my two friends/roommates for the weekend, Logan and Sarah. I think we were only sitting there for 10 minutes but it felt like an hour. We awkwardly half smiled and patiently waited in silence since we realized we couldn’t even pronounce a word in Arabic. Finally the daughter showed up and we were shocked with how eloquently she spoke English. She was very sweet and sat to talk with us before dinner. We definitely did not want to say anything that would offend her so we started off with some easy introductions, said what we studied, where we are from, and what we like to do. She was 19 years old and studied business at the college nearby. I asked her what she likes to do for fun. She responded, “You know, look up Youtube videos of the experts.” I stupidly replied, “The experts of what?” I think I was the only one out of us three that didn’t know what she was referring to because I saw Logan mouth “careful” at me from the corner of my eye. “The experts of my religion of course! Whenever I am not studying I am researching my religion and learning more about the Koran, Sooma, the prophet, etc.” Oh, oops. We had only been here a few minutes and I already accidentally brought up the number one topic we were told to avoid. She then went on about her religion and seemed extremely comfortable talking to us about it. So we kind of tested the waters and went for it. Before we knew it, we had spent over an hour learning about Muslims, Islam, and about her personal views. We later were told by our guide that we were staying with the most religious family in the program and also found out we had a very different home stay experience than the other students. The other students had very progressive families where the husband and wife did equal amounts of work. Many women didn’t cover their heads. The dinner table was surrounded with laughter and conversation. Their stereotypes were broken, while unfortunately some of mine were being enforced.
While our host family was extremely kind to us, the wife was like a maid. She did not laugh or smile. She was married when she was only 15 years old to her 20 year senior husband. We later asked the daughter if she wears the hijab. Since she was in her home and only around women, she did not have one on. She replied in a very sweet voice, “Yes, if you do not cover your head, you go to hell.” Oh. Okay then. We tried to talk about a less serious topic. “The food is delicious! Is this lamb?” She replied, “Thank you! Yes, it is, we just slaughtered it last week as a sacrifice.” Oh. Logan asked, “Where did you do that?” She pointed next to us, “Right there!” Suddenly Baba Baba Black Sheep was stuck in my head and I lost my appetite for a second. Since the conversation had been going just dandy, I decided to ask even more questions. “So who do women have to wear a Hijab around?” She replied, “Only outside of the house and not around family, well except your cousins of course.” “Why around your cousins?” I asked. “Because you have to cover your head around anyone you can marry.” Um… “So you’re saying you can marry your first cousins?” -“Yes! Of course! They don’t do that in the United States?” -“Nope, pretty sure it’s illegal.” -“Strange.” She replied. I then asked, “So is that very common in Morocco?” She smiled and sat up a little straighter, “Yes! My parents are first cousins! And we know Allah allows it because we don’t have any mental disabilities so it is good.” Logan, Sarah, and I tried our best not to exchange looks and I’m pretty sure it took everything in us not to quote Mean Girls, “Well you have your cousins, then you have your first cousins…that’s not right is it?” No, that’s so not right…Thankfully it was then time for bed.
At 5am the three of us woke up to an unfamiliar sound blasting through our windows. It took me a minute to realize that it was the call to prayer that is projected from the top of the Mosque five times a day. It was alarming at first, but very interesting (in a good way). After a short time, it stopped and I was back to sleep, for about two seconds. My only complaint about Morocco: that damn rooster outside my window. This thing would not shut up. I was about to jump up and catch tonight’s dinner if I heard another cockadoodledoo. Fortunately, in the morning our sleepy eyes were welcomed with a platter filled with different jams, butter, olive oil, and honey. We covered the delicious bread with these sweets and drank the famous Moroccan sweet mint tea. I could not get enough of that stuff.
We then drove to an NGO in Salé to speak with some more Moroccan university students. This conversation was even more heated than the first. They opened it up for questions. I couldn’t help myself and immediately asked, “How do you feel about marrying your first cousins?” The entire room laughed. One particularly spunky girl replied, “It’s totally normal. If you marry your cousin from your mom’s side, not your dad’s side, there won’t be any birth defects.” I am certainly not a scientist so I really couldn’t comment on this. We also talked about homosexuality. They explained that they personally have friends that are homosexual and it doesn’t bother them. However, it is a common belief that “homosexuality is a choice. You are genetically born with it and it is your choice whether or not to act on it or not. The act is a sin.” The one girl then asked me, “How do you feel about it?” I didn’t hesitate for one second. “I 100% support gay rights. There are so many actual problems in the world. Who are we to stop people from loving who they love? Everyone has a right to happiness.” The conversation continued for a few more hours and they asked for a final question. I asked, “What is your favorite part about being a women in Morocco?” The girls smiled and replied, “Moroccan women are so spoiled. We get whatever we want. We love it.” Well, can’t say I would disagree with that. I left this conversation with only one question remaining. What did the one girl do to have such fabulous cheek bones and hair?! Seriously. This girl was a super model. Tell me your secret!
So this is where things get weird. I’m talking laying naked across from one of your good friends while two 300 hundred pound topless Moroccan women scrub your butt and sing to you in Arabic. No, that wasn’t just an expression. If you haven’t guessed it already, that night we went to the Hammam. This is a very common bathhouse in Morocco where people go up to 4 times a week to get squeaky clean. I don’t know if I felt clean after leaving there, but I’ve definitely never have been so exfoliated in my life. My skin feels awesome! We ditched our tops and walked inside this three chamber room, each one being hotter than the previous one. I was expecting it to be like a japanese hot bath with the giant pools, but instead it was a bunch of naked chicks with buckets and spigots. The very large Moroccan lady that worked there told me and Sarah to lay down aka she pointed at the ground and said something in Arabic to us then yanked my arm until I sat. Then it was time to scrub away about 5 layers of skin. Things then got weirder (yes, that’s possible). These women started singing and all the girls nearby started laughing. Sarah and I were so confused. Finally, a girl who spoke English turned around and said, “She is singing to you two because she thinks you are beautiful.” In any other situation this might have been cute, but all I could think of was that some huge women is currently scrubbing my butt. Sarah and I had to laugh at the awkwardness and agreed if we weren’t friends before, we certainly are now! I think it’s safe to say that the Hammam is definitely one of the ultimate bonding experiences.
The next day we went to the country side to speak with another family. This was a very different experience than in the city. Everyone rode donkeys and there was barely anything around us. Animals roamed everywhere and people dressed very conservatively. The family welcomed us with a delicious coos coos meal and told us we could ask them anything. The conversation was way racier than I had expected and they were extremely open and curious about American culture. They asked us about sex before marriage, abortion, politics, you name it. They did not judge us for anything and only wanted to learn. They were adorable together and I was so happy that I was able to meet this Moroccan couple after my home stay in Rabat. They would playfully nudge each other and were all smiles and laughter. Their little kids crawled all over them and ran all around. The wife would talk right over her husband and said whatever she damn pleased. They were happy. They were in love. I asked our translator to ask them how they met. The husband replied that they had only known each other 15 minutes before getting married and that luckily everything worked out and they are so happy. He called her a gift from Allah and that his only jobs in life are to provide for his family and to be loyal to his wife. Both of these people only had 5 years of elementary education combined between the two of them, yet they knew more than anyone sitting in that room. They knew that happiness didn’t come from things and that love is love. They lived off of the land and wanted the best for their children. They sent all of their kids to school and are extremely open minded. They live in the middle of no where yet were some of the wisest people I have ever met. It really made me reevaluate what I prioritize in life. What is actually important to me? What do I really need? What have I let slip away? It was extremely eye opening.
We said our goodbyes and were off to the final stop of our trip. Chefchaouen was incredibly beautiful, but the most touristy visit for us. Everyone spoke English, Spanish, French, Arabic, and probably even more languages. I began counting the different ways I was greeted: Hello, Hola, Bonjour, Aloha, and my personal favorite, Konnichiwa (of course). Logan and I then proceeded to buy everything. I mean everything. We realized that we just started buying random things as presents because we loved to bargain and pretend we were Spaniards. Safe to say all of my Christmas shopping is done. Moroccan gifts for everyone!
It was the most incredible weekend I have had abroad by far. Perhaps, the most incredible 4 days of
my short life. I learned so much. I completely changed my views and I experienced things I never thought I would have the opportunity to experience. Yes, Morocco has its’ fair share of problems, but can you name a country that doesn’t? I may not be some religious or political fanatic but what I can tell you is that the people of Morocco are some of the kindest men and women I have ever encountered in my life. On the last day I bought some final gifts from a street vendor. We had a great conversation and I thanked him and began to leave. He quickly stopped me and told me he had a gift for me. He reached up and grabbed a shiny pair of earrings. He showed them to me and said “You are such a gentle person. Take this as a gift. It is the hand of Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter, I want you to have these to remember us by.” I accepted the gift, shook his hand, and told him that Morocco is somewhere I will never forget. شكرا , shukran, thank you.